Photo: Tyler Hansen Photography
After the release of their EP, Great Spirit, three marriages, five moves, and a whole lot of life lived, Before the Brave is back on the scene to gift San Francisco with their first LP, Better Country.
As I made a my way to 6th and Market to talk music with three of the five members, I happened upon a seemingly separate occurrence — an older man on the ground in a panic, fending off a group of young men threatening to use his cane to show him how to keep his mouth shut. I stopped for a while, took in the scene stunned and feeling unable to help. I shook off the moment, sat on a bench along the hustle of Market and soaked up a rare moment of San Francisco sunshine before our interview. It dawned on me much later that this incident and that setting were much more closely related to some of the central themes of Better Country than I realized. But we will get to that.
With the addition of guitarist Ryan Devisser and bassist Miguel Castuera, Before the Brave has found the missing sonic backbone it was looking for, expanding from their alt-country, folk roots to include influences of blues, anthemic indie-rock, and grooving funk in a fresh, unexpected way.
“The old Before the Brave, Great Spirit, isn’t dead, but it’s part of a bigger canon, a bigger vision of what we can be,” explains drummer Kyle Teese.
Photo: Jess Luoma
Photo: Jess Luoma
As they are evolving, their mantra — “good news, be brave” — has remained the heartbeat of who they are as a band. Devisser explains how the mantra shows thematically and in the lyrics of their new record, “it’s about the ways that we love each other, it’s about the ways we fail to love each other and always tinged with a lens of optimism on a personal level and a larger level.”
“We’re a band who is always looking to be honest about how rough it is but also be really hopeful, because we have hope,” says Teese.
“That comes out in the songwriting and our performances — we perform from a place that’s very honest and vulnerable. It’s not about being polished,” further explains vocalist and songwriter Beth Garber.
Producer Andy Freeman agrees: “I think people like Before the Brave because of all that energy in their live shows. Jason and Beth are full of life onstage, so I wanted to make sure the record captured their humanity and vitality.”
The band’s honesty about their own humanity and the human experience at large are the powerful underpinnings of Better Country, a name derived from a deep feeling of longing for home. In the very first lyrics of the title track, vocalist/guitarist Jason Stevens sings, “if you could see in my mind, you’d see half the man I’d hope you’d find.”
“It’s like, I’m not even the person I want to be, I feel so far off. I’m not even at home in myself, I’m not at home in the place that I live,” explains Teese. “Better Country is that feeling of home. Especially in this time right now, there’s such a feeling of homelessness, whether literally being on the street or existentially. I mean, talk about issues of injustice in this country and the loss that’s happening. There’s a collective sense that we all want and long for a better country.”
C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “In speaking of this desire for our own far off country…I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you — the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence. It is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Ah yes, the man on the street was speaking to this place in me that knows things aren’t as they should be. And the moment of sunshine that reminded me of summer days of my youth, a piece of rest amidst the chaos of a city. It is this wrestling between the way we hoped things would be and the way that they are. Each song on the album is an introspective vignette tying into the grandeur of a place bigger than themselves and placed onto unexpected influences of The Head and the Heart, Alabama Shakes, Emmylou Harris, and even reaching back to the California classic pop sounds of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles.
“Most of the songs wrestle with how to sort out the issues in my own life so I can actually be a part of contributing. It starts with me & that’s the powerful thing that actually causes people to be freed to change and bring change in other peoples lives. It starts with me humbling myself and admitting I am not the answer, I am not right,” says Teese.
Photo: Tyler Hansen Photography
“The music isn’t escapism. I think our album is begging for the opposite and is asking for people to actually tune in. What the album does is says here’s this longing we have but instead of pointing fingers and blaming and calling people out, it’s more so about self criticism,” says Teese.
Their single, “Cold, Cold, Cold” grooves along bouncy piano chords as the vocal duet respond to heartbreak and the walls that go up in relationships. “Jason is completely unhinged on that one, and I love it! He’d come out of the vocal booth all sweaty and amped-up and you can totally hear it in the final vocal,” says Freeman. Things slow down with the gentleness of the “The Wind,” which touches on the fleeting feelings of joy set upon an electric soundscape and shifting into a happiness, groove, and a bucket of energy. The interlude, “Story Told,” with the line, “Everybody wants a place to go / A hand to hold / A place to call home,” reflectively ties the album back to it’s larger theme at play, the Better Country.
And then there is perhaps my favorite, “Poet’s Prison.” It’s a gritty song about being your own worst enemy and realizing how much of a mess you’re making, but then, at times, being so proud of yourself. Vocally, it punches you in the face. The song goes from a lowly self-awareness to a triumphant finish of “I may never die.” Following that is the spellbinding, Joan Baez-esque performance by Garber of “Sleeping for Now,” a love song. It’s magic.
Teese explains “Suburban Cross” as “what I’m constantly looking for in a relationship, what I’m constantly looking for in a night out, in my finances, or in trying to replicate something I had in the past, but what I’m really looking for is a real relationship with God and there’s an honest dependency. We’re not playing around with church language, I’m longing for something that will make me feel like liquor makes me feel — ‘a liquor that won’t make me drown.’”
The album ends on somewhat of a lament with “Devil on the Inside” as Stevens (unbeknownst to his worried sick mother) grapples with the capacity for darkness he feels, leaving the listener on a self-reflective note, with echoes of hope forging them into the unknown.
The depths and musicality of this record and the warmth and rawness of its creators, truly set this band apart. As a former San Franciscan, Freeman shares, “It’s my hope that Before the Brave will bring vitality, energy, and fun to the SF scene. That’s something I think the world at large will appreciate too. Today, California. Tomorrow….”
You can catch the record release at Bottom of the Hill this Saturday, October 22. Until then, we present to you an exclusive streaming of the album before its release tomorrow.
Before the Brave, GROWWLER, Annie Bacon and her Oshen
Bottom of the Hill
October 22, 2016
9pm, $12 (21+)
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